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Garlic can thrive in Utah gardens, with the proper care

Published: Sunday, Aug. 29 2010 5:18 p.m. MDT

Richard Norris holds heads of garlic he grew and dried in West Jordan.

Larry Sagers

My first experience with growing garlic was not as an edible plant.

Our neighbor, of southern European extraction, convinced my mother that planting garlic around her peach trees would keep them from getting the peach tree borer.

Sadly, the peaches still got borers — but I can say I never saw a vampire in the garden!

Garlic — or Allium sativum — is a cold-hardy member of the onion genus. It likely originated in central Asia but was naturalized in southern Europe many centuries ago. While onions produce one large bulb, garlic produces clusters of small bulbs called cloves.

Each cluster contains a dozen or more cloves covered with a thin white skin. The leaves are flat rather than round and hollow like onion leaves. Incredibly, more than 15 million tons of garlic are grown each year in the world, and there is even a syndrome called "alliumphobia" for vampires and others who have an irrational fear of garlic.

One local garlic aficionado who does not suffer from the syndrome is Richard Norris of West Jordan. He got into garlic growing by accident.

"I used to go by a fellow's house and noticed that his onions were always up and growing, even in the early spring," he said.

"One year, it rained and rained and rained, and his onions were still growing really early. I finally stopped by and asked him, 'How did you get your onions to grow so early?'

"His name was Johnny Tibola, and he said, 'They aren't onions they are garlic.' I countered and said, 'You can't grow garlic in Utah!' and he snickered and said, 'I wish someone had told my dad that 80 years ago.' "

When Norris expressed an interest in learning to grow the garlic, he was invited to come back the second week of July when the garlic was harvested and Tibola would share a start with him.

He shared the start of garlic 30 years ago.

"As near as I can determine, this garlic is an Italian red," Norris said. "Tibola's brother brought it over with him from near where the family lived near the Alps in Italy, so as near as I can figure, it has been in Utah for about 110 years."

Norris got eight to 10 heads, and Tibola told him to plant the outer cloves because they would grow better.

"I took them home and planted it the way he told me how to do it," Norris said. "I also got some books on growing garlic and contacted growers in Oregon and talked to them about how to grow it."

Over the years, he as learned a great deal and agreed to share his secrets.

"Planting garlic is a little like planting a tulip. I try to get mine in the ground by Oct. 20 each year. Sometimes it starts to grow in the fall, and sometimes it doesn't. It really makes no difference," he said.

Norris is a great believer in fertilizing the garlic to get it to grow. He puts a teaspoon of bone meal on top of each bulb when he plants it and leaves them alone until spring.

"When the snow melts and the leaves start growing in March, I top dress the plants by sprinkling 16-16-8 fertilizer, much like I am feeding chickens. I let it (the garlic) get 8-10 inches high in April and then hit it with some Miracle Grow. I top dress again in May with more 16-16-8, and in June, when it gets hot, I give it one more shot of Miracle Grow."

"The first part of July, the plants shut down no matter what you do. They are through. I wait until after four or five of the top leaves have wilted and then pull the garlic," he said.

"I clean off all the dirt and string them together and hang them in the rafters of the garage to dry. You can hang them anywhere you like, as long as it is out of the sun and is warm. I let them dry for three to four weeks and then take them down and twist off the beard. I cut them off at about 2 inches and then put six to eight heads in a nylon bag."

"I first save my seed cloves for planting this fall and then pick the ones I am going to eat and the ones I am going to give away."

Evidence of his skill came while sitting at the kitchen table when I visited.

He and his wife, Cindy, had made a batch of salsa the night before.

"Garlic just struck my interest because I like the flavor and I like to grow it," Norris said of his hobby. "I like to grow tomatoes and cucumbers and all the other vegetables and I just like green things." And as a note of interest, I did not see any vampires in his neighborhood, either.

Garden tips and events

Wasatch Community Gardens is holding its annual free Grateful Tomato Sandwich Party on Sept. 11, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Grateful Tomato Garden, 800 South and 600 East.

Thanksgiving Point is offering a class on wonderful spring flower gardens, Sept. 9, 21 and 28, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. or 6-8:30 p.m. The cost is $40.

Thanksgiving Point is also offering a class on creating fabulous fall color in your landscape, Sept. 9, 21 and 28, 2 p.m.-4:30 p.m. The cost is $40. For more information, or to register, log on to www.thanksgivingpoint.com or call 801-768-4971.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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